If struggling with an eating disorder has ever left you feeling isolated or “different” than the people around you, or if you’ve ever looked around and realized that you’re recovering into a culture that can be unsupportive and even hostile to the healthy attitudes and habits you’re working to adopt, then give yourself the gift of attending a NEDA conference.
I attended my first NEDA conference in October 2016. At that point, I was in recovery from a 15-year struggle with an eating disorder—a struggle that, at its worst, had cut me off from family, wrecked most of my friendships, and was starting to take a frightening toll on my health. In treatment, I was learning healthier ways to cope with difficult emotions and, most importantly, I was turning to relationships for love and support rather than my eating disorder.
Still, the long and arduous road to recovery can feel lonely. Misunderstandings and myths abound. And no matter how fiercely your friends and family love you, it can be challenging to explain what’s going through your head when you’re locked in battle against the eating disorder.
But at the NEDA conference, those feelings of loneliness and “other-ness” evaporated. It was like someone had opened a window to let fresh air in. I found myself among people who struggled with the same things I did. People who felt my feelings and spoke my language.
At the NEDA conference, I found a group of people where I feel so at home.
Moreover, being in the conference space was like entering a recovery oasis. The world doesn’t offer too many safe spaces away from diet talk, body shaming, and stigma. From the moment that I arrived until the moment I was saying my goodbyes and exchanging Instagram handles, it was as if I had stepped into the world as I wish it could be for anyone fighting for recovery. It is a rare gift to have such a space available, even if only for one revitalizing weekend.
Some people may be reading this and wondering if they’re ready for that kind of immersion. It’s enough to live every day with eating disorder; why go somewhere to talk about it even more?
Keep in mind that you only have to talk about as much as you’re comfortable with. You don’t have to share your story at all if you don’t feel ready (although you certainly can share your story, whether in a group processing session or informally with the new friends you meet). You can go simply for the experience of being among people who intuitively understand your experience. To reinforce to yourself that you are not alone on this journey.
That powerful connection was what meant the most to me during my time at the NEDA conference. In a world that can make us feel so isolated and misunderstood, that connection is life-giving.
Joanna Kay is a New York City writer in recovery from anorexia nervosa. She has written for the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), HealthyPlace.com, and other mental health sites.